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Notes From a Small Island (Bill Bryson, 1995)

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ISBN 0-552-99600-9

A flawed masterpiece.

I want to rave about Notes, but the comments that quickly come to mind are complaints. Damn you, Bryson, why didn’t you make it perfect?

Let’s start at the beginning. The Prologue is a comic masterpiece but, better than that, it is great writing as well: Mrs Smegma (not the dear lady's real name, one assumes, and if you do not, by chance, already happen to know the meaning of the word, I advise against looking it up; you are better off not knowing) complete with her retinue of misbegotten boarders, comes to life. Whether that is a desireable outcome is, of course, another question!

Unfortunately, the wickedly funny eventually becomes plain smart-ass …

‘"Is it raining out?" the reception girl asked brightly as I filled in the registration card between sneezes and pauses to wipe water from my face with the back of my arm.

‘"No, my ship sank and I had to swim the last seven miles."

‘"Oh, yes?" she went on in a manner that made me suspect she was not attending my words closely.’

… and finally degenerates into mere whining:

‘At it’s eastern extremity Kybald Street ends in a pocket-sized square that positively cries out for a small fountain [Ugh! To each his own, Bill.] and maybe some benches. But what we find instead is a messy jumble of double- and triple-parked cars. Now on to Oriel Square: an even messier jumble of abandoned vehicles. Then on up Cornmarket (avert your gaze; this is truly hideous), past Broad Street and St. Giles (still more automotive messiness) and finally let us stop, exhausted and dispirited, outside the unconscionable concrete eyesore that is the University Offices on the absurdly named Wellington Square.’

There are pages of this tiresome ranting.

Although lifted by some genuinely insightful and incisive observation (yes, just what kind of a mean-spirited asshole does stick up a notice forbidding motorists to turn around in their drive?) and a great deal of real humour, I found the core of the book laboured somewhat and, frankly, a bit of a drag to wade through. About two thirds of the way through, however, Bryson hits his straps again and the remaining pages show us all just how this sort of writing should be done. Executed with humour, vigour, and a certain elan, the final section is a sustained work of brilliance, where it doesn’t even matter that a good deal appears to be fiction. (For example, having presented himself as a quite capable driver in the earlier written Lost Continent, it is implausible that Bryson should experience the difficulties he describes driving a car through Scotland.)

The non-stop striving after laughs – successful and otherwise – is something you’ve got to be in the mood for. Interestingly, Bryson's BBC television series of the same name (available on DVD) is a far more considered piece. Although he reuses some of the same anecdotes, and indeed some of the same text, the television series is altogether fonder, gentler, more thoughtful. Better, in a word.

Recommendation: Recommended though, if you’ve not read Bryson before, I’d suggest starting with Neither Here Nor There first. Four out of five.

Look and Feel: My edition is the usual matt-finish paperback.

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